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Why do police touch vehicle taillights?

On Behalf of | Jul 1, 2022 | Criminal Defense |

Watching a police officer approach your vehicle during a stop is a dreaded experience. In addition to be confused on the reason for the police stop, you may also wonder why the officer touched or tapped your vehicle taillight.

It’s legal

The police practice of tapping or touching a taillight has been done for decades during a traffic stop where police investigate a possible crime or minor violation. This is legal and does not violate civil rights.

Although it is legal, it may be an outdated practice with the advent of new technologies such as dashboard cameras. There are two general reasons why this practice occurs, however.


Police have touched taillights as a form of protection and proof. They touch taillights to leave their fingerprints on the vehicle.

Fingerprints were considered as being the only proof of their connection to the vehicle in case they were injured by the motorist, or the vehicle drove off. Before the advent of videocams and other technology, their fingerprints may have been the proof of the vehicle stop if there were no other witnesses.

Startling the driver

Tapping the taillight was used to startle the driver. This was intended to stop or distract them from hiding evidence. This practice was proven to increase arrests of vehicle occupants for illegal drugs and unlicensed firearms.

Also, police officers would judge the reaction of vehicle occupants. If they act suspiciously or begin to hide something, the police will act more cautiously.


However, this practice also poses risks to police officers. Tapping the taillight, even for a few seconds, distracts the police officer if the vehicle’s occupants draw weapons or use the vehicle to strike the officer.


Even before the arrival of new technology, taillight tapping was a relatively crude method of proof. Fingerprints, for example, could be smudged or washed away.

Police dash cams and body cameras more accurately record information on the stop. These devices can record the vehicle’s model and color, license plate and what transpired during the stop. CCTV cameras also placed in intersections and other high traffic areas can record information.

Traffic stops, however, may pose other legal perils for motorists. The right to remain silent and against warrantless search, for example, may be violated. Attorneys can help protect these rights.